I don’t mean to turn my blog into a memory-fest, but a lot of stuff happened in the summer and fall of 1997. I was, as you’ll recall, pregnant with my firstborn. The school I taught at closed down (I just blogged about that). Princess Diana died (I didn’t blog about that). Mother Teresa died (didn’t blog about that either). And then, on September 19, a far less attention-grabbing celebrity death: singer/songwriter Rich Mullins was killed in a car accident. He was 42 years old.
I never got to see him in concert. I’ve never gotten over his death.
I know some folks with disagree with me, but I believe that people who say that “contemporary Christian music” is shallow, banal, and musically/lyrically/theologically vapid, either have not listened to Rich Mullins, or possibly have not listened to Rich Mullins enough. There is probably no-one except Jesus — not even C.S. Lewis or Anne Lamott — whose work has had a bigger influence on my faith than the songs of Rich Mullins. Sometimes his music was all that kept me hanging onto any kind of faith at all.
When Rich made money from his music, he turned it over to his church. They paid him whatever the average salary was for a worker in the US that year, and gave the rest to charity. On his Wikipedia page you can find this fact coupled with one my favourite Rich Mullins quotes:
Jesus said whatever you do to the least of these my brothers you’ve done it to me. And this is what I’ve come to think. That if I want to identify fully with Jesus Christ, who I claim to be my Savior and Lord, the best way that I can do that is to identify with the poor. This I know will go against the teachings of all the popular evangelical preachers. But they’re just wrong. They’re not bad, they’re just wrong. Christianity is not about building an absolutely secure little niche in the world where you can live with your perfect little wife and your perfect little children in a beautiful little house where you have no gays or minority groups anywhere near you. Christianity is about learning to love like Jesus loved and Jesus loved the poor and Jesus loved the broken-hearted.
He would have been 62 this year. It’s impossible to imagine the songs he would have written, the directions his faith and his art would have taken him. I think he probably would have drifted farther away than he already was from the centre of American Evangelical Christianity and probably be shocked and horrified by the political/cultural directions that branch of Christianity has taken in these last 20 years … but who’s to say? It’s only guesswork. We never know what could have been, only what was. What was, and are, are the songs.
Here are five of my favourite Rich Mullins songs (some are videos and some just audio), with my comments.
I think I probably first heard Rich Mullins sing either “First Family” or “Boy Like Me, Man Like You” because those were his early Christian radio hits. But when I bought my first Rich Mullins album (The World as Best as I Remember It, Volume One), the first lines of “Jacob and Two Women” jumped out at me as being completely unlike anything I’d heard in Christian music and most of what I’d heard in church. When you hear a guy sing “Jacob he loved Rachel, and Rachel she loved him, and Leah was just there for dramatic effect/ Well it’s right there in the Bible so it must not be a sin, but it sure does seem like an awful dirty trick” … well, you know you’re in the presence of a songwriter who is not playing around with a bunch of Christian cliches and putting on a holy face. This was real stuff.
Outside of his hardcore fans, Rich is known for writing the praise-and-worship anthems “Awesome God” and “Sing Your Praise to the Lord.” While I like those songs, I don’t like them as well as his more singer-songwritery stuff. If I want to hear Rich Mullins do a praise and worship song, something to make me lift my hands and go all Pentecostal, it’ll be “Sometimes by Step.” It’s a song about one of my favourite spiritual themes — how God leads us only one step at a time — we can’t ever see the whole way, and the only way to know where the path is going is just to step out and follow it.
Another of my favourite themes: grace. This one contains the lines: “Stuff of earth competes for the allegiance I owe only to the Giver of all good things.” Stuff of earth is always competing for my allegiance, and this song reminds me where that allegiance belongs.
This is one of my favourite hymns. Rich’s tune is different from the one in my hymnbook and it’s possibly better than the hymnal. Again, this one is about following step by step. Being humble; being led.
Finally … if you know me really well, you know not only that I’ve always loved Rich Mullins’s music but also that it was a fandom I shared with my friend Jamie. Jamie did get to see Rich in concert, and I was so envious of that. Fourteen years after Rich died, Jamie, too, died at age 42 … another loss I’ve never gotten over. The last time I visited him before he died, the last thing we did together was sit for an hour or so listening to Rich Mullins songs. We listened to “Hold Me Jesus” and analyzed the lyrics, like we always did with songs. Listening to “Hold Me Jesus,” possibly my very favourite Rich song, while sitting with my dying friend, putting whatever faith we had between us into that prayer … it’s one of my loveliest and most painful memories.